The thing is that I always kind of knew there was something going on with Jessie Spano, and I loved her in spite of it. She delighted me from the start-her sass, her awesome hair, her unapologetic politics. She might have been the first feminist I ever saw on television who actually used the word feminist to refer to herself. (There were other feminists, of course, i.e. the Golden Girls and Roseanne, but I don’t think the “f word” was ever uttered on either show.)
There was something that wasn’t quite right about Jessie, and I don’t think I had a name for it until this morning, when I saw this video. And then I thought, crap, Jessie Spano was a straw feminist. Maybe?
A straw feminist is shrill. She’s reactionary and hates fun. Every second of her day is devoted to man hating, like it were a team sport. She’s what makes you afraid of the word feminist. You might watch her for ten minutes and feel the need to get your bikini line waxed, even if you’ve never thought of it before, just because SHE definitely doesn’t wax her bikini line (because feminists don’t care how we look) and you do not want to resemble her in any way.
Jessie was in many ways a caricature. I remember watching her react to things, Slater calling women chicks, for example, and thinking, “Maybe she should calm down?” It’s doubtful that I could have watched the show as a pre teen and been able to see that she actually did not need to calm down-Slater and Zack both had problematic views and relationships with women, and that speaking up when you’re uncomfortable, especially when you’re a teenaged girl, is awesome and something to emulate. That being said, she was treated by her peers, for the most part, as uptight, crazy and often unpleasant.
Also, the Slater Situation? (There were so many inexplicable things on this show.) The device of Chauvinist and Feminist Getting Together is a real antique. The Chauvinist will tame the Feminist, albeit in a G rated way, and show her that Dudes are not so bad after all, and if she really likes him, she’ll deal with him calling her things like “Legs” and “Mama.” (Trivia: Saved by the Bell fan fiction exists. I found some while googling things for this piece.) The Chauvinist will somehow manage to like the Feminist a lot in spite of her feminist-ness, but he won’t change his behavior, because it’s charming. Feminism, on the other hand, is something that needs to be tempered, preferably with a penis. (Except not on Saved by the Bell.)
So, straw feminist. I’m not sure. In some ways, Jessie was more complicated than the feminist caricature, and on the other, not so much. The fact is that I probably just don’t want her to be a straw feminist, because, straw or not, she was one of the first examples of feminism I ever saw, and therefore, kind of responsible for my political awakening. And I’m nothing if not a cautionary tale.